Grain Leather vs. Split Leather
There is a reason why leather comes in so many thicknesses, or weights, even if it comes from the same kind of animal. It is because most hides are split into at least 2 layers and sometimes more. Grain Leather is leather made from the top layer of a hide, the layer that had hair attached to it. It is the higher quality layer that is used to make everything from expensive shoes and handbags to expensive floggers and whips. To get leather down to the desired thickness, the underside is sliced off. This is why grain leather hides are relatively even in their thickness.
The bottom layer that is shaved off is called split leather. It is then used to make less expensive items like wallets or shoes. This layer gives us what is commonly referred to as Genuine Leather, sueded leathers, and bonded leathers. Sometimes this leather is stamped or embossed with a texture to make it look like grain leather.
Full Grain - Full grain leather is the top most layer of leather with only the fir removed so it retains all of the grain. It is the highest quality leather type because it is the most durable. The only downside to full grain leather is that it will show all of the blemishes on the hide.
Top Grain - Top grain leather is very similar to full grain. It is made by taking full grain leather and buffing or sanding off surface blemishes to create a more uniform look. Top grain leather is still very durable. The sanding process makes it smoother and more flexible. It's more uniform look is the reason it is used for high end jackets and bags.
Nubuck - Commonly confused with suede, nubuck leather is top grain leather that has been buffed and sanded in a way to create a soft nap on both sides. While nubuck does look and feel like suede, it is made from a higher quality layer of leather giving it more strength and durability.
Genuine Leather - If you have ever looked at a wallet, belt, jacket or pretty much anything else that is cheap but made of leather has seen Genuine Leather on a tag. The title is technically true in that it is made of leather. Genuine leather is made by taking the layers shaved from the bottom of grain leather and glueing them together under a large amount of pressure. It is then either coated with a finish to look smooth and shiney or it is sometimes embossed either with images or to look like grain leather. Genuine leather is of very low quality. The layers tend to separate with use and the finishes will rub off quickly.
Suede - Most people are familiar with suede. It is soft. It is flexible. It feels good on the skin. Suede is made from the leather split from the top grain leather so it can come in many different weights. Unlike genuine leather, it is not layered and it does not have a finish put on it. This leaves a nap finish on both sides. The difference between suede and nubuck is the layer of leather it is made from. Nubuck is made from the top grain layer of leather giving it its strength and durability. Suede is made from the split layer so it can be sold cheaply. While not as fragile as genuine leather, it will wear more quickly than nubuck.
Bonded Leather - Bonded leather is the lowest quality of leather and it barely qualifies as leather. It is made from the shavings and scraps of other leathers. It is ground down and mixed with chemicals much like particle board. It is then coated, and sometimes embossed, polyurethane coating. It is technically leather because it is composed of at least 51% leather. It is sometimes labeled as genuine leather. Bonded leather will fall apart quickly with use.
Leather and Impact
Before we go into the different types, here are a few things that will affect the sensation of your leather impact toys:
1) The stiffer the leather, the stingier it will be. Conversely, the softer the leather, the thuddier it will be.
2) The heavier the leather, the thuddier it will be. This is true even of stiffer leathers. If it is a stiff, heavy leather, you will get both a sting and thud.
3) The wider the falls, the thuddier it will feel. Thinner falls will give you sting.
Cow - Cowhide is one of the most versatile leathers there is. 65-70% of all of the leather used in the world is cowhide. It is so common that if something says that it is made from leather but not what type of leather, it is probably cow. It is strong, flexible, durable and comes in a wide range of thicknesses and finishes. This variety means that you can get impact toys in cow leather to produce just about any sensation. See Leather and Impact for details.
Bull - Bullhide is a thicker, heavier version of cowhide. It is very durable, often used to make cowboy boots. The flesh side will have a larger grain than cowhide does. Like all thick leathers, it can be finished to be very rigid or soft and flexible. The large grain and thickness can cause large wrinkles and creases in the hides. Those creases can show up in your toys but they can also hide scuffs and scratches. Most bullhide used for impact toys are 6-8 ounces and flexible. This thickness will make it heavy so it is good for thud. Full or top grain bullhide will have a textured finish that can produce some sting, especially with thinner falls..
Deer - Deerskin is one of the most supple and softest leathers that you will find. Though it is not a thick leather, it is very durable. Its strength is why it is often used for lacing. It is stretchy and will shape itself making it good for clothing and shoes. North American deerskin is generally 2-3 ounces. Mule deer can be up to 4 ounces. Due to the thinness of the leather, blemishes and scars can not be removed like they can be in a thicker leather. You can expect imperfections in impact implements made from deerskin. Because it is so soft, deer floggers will be thuddy with little to no sting even with thin falls. The lightness of the leather means that it takes a good bit of leather to give a sensation. It can also be very porous so it is susceptible to staining from oils or other fluids. Cleaning deer can be a bit of a challenge. See our section on leather cleaning, coming soon.
Bison - A clarifying note before I start on bison. In the US, we tend to use the terms bison and buffalo interchangeably. Technically, buffalo are limited to the Asian Water Buffalo and the African Cape Buffalo. Bison are from North America. Bison hides are not stretched during the tanning process meaning that it retains all of its natural strength. It also keeps all of its large pebble grain. Bison is used in a lot of shoe making. An 8-9 ounce bison used to make moccasins will be very soft, very heavy, and very thuddy. At the other end of the spectrum, Tucson bison is very rigid, very heavy, and very stingy.
Elk - Elkskin is very similar to deerskin. It is soft with a suede like feel to it. It is heavier than North American deer but similar in weight to mule deer. Everything about deer is true for elk. It too will have flaws on the hides, is very porous, and can be a challenge to clean. It is also durable and feels very good on the skin. The price of elk can be 2-3 times that of deer with limited colors available.
Kangaroo - Kangaroo skin does not have sweat glands and almost no fat. Glands and fat are typically dissolved during the tanning process. Because kangaroo has neither, the end result is a leather with 10 times the tensile strength of cow hide. At its thickest, you can find kangaroo at 4 ounces but it is more common in 2-2.5 ounces. Its thinness, strength and softness is why it is used to make the best whips. If it was made as a flogger, it would be very light and soft giving a light to medium sting.
Moose - Moose has a soft, spongy texture that makes it excellent for thuddy impact toys. It comes in a variety of weights from 3 ounce up to 10 ounces making it great for moccasins and other garments. Moose is a very strong leather. Items made from it can last for years with regular use.
Lamb/Sheep - First, the difference between lambskin and sheepskin. Sheepskin is a hide tanned with the fur left on. Lambskin is a hide that is tanned without fur. Of all of the mass produced leather, lambskin is the thinnest leather. It is very soft and flexible and very light. Impact toys made from lambskin, unless there is a ton of it, will have very little impact. Sheepskin is often used as the lining of cuffs and collars.